The trade deadline is less than a week away, and with a big deal yet to be made, we could see a flurry of activity in the coming days. Luis Castillo figures to be one of the most sought-after targets, likely driving his acquisition cost into sky-high territories. Should the Yankees balk at the prospect ask for the Reds ace, they could turn to the number two in the Cincinnati rotation, Tyler Mahle.
2022 Stats: 18 games, 98.1 IP, 4.48 ERA (102 ERA+), 3.79 FIP, 25.6% K%, 9.3 % BB%, 1.8 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Earning $5.2 million in second year of arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2023 season.
The 27-year-old righty established himself as a legitimate full-time starter during the COVID-shortened 2020 season when he logged the 20th-highest strikeout rate (29.2 percent) of any starting pitcher with at least 40 innings pitched. He followed that up with a true breakout campaign in 2021, tying six others with a league-high 33 starts while pitching to a 3.75 ERA (125 ERA+), 3.80 FIP, and 210 strikeouts in 180 innings en route to an 18th-place finish in fWAR (3.8). That performance along with rotation-mate Luis Castillo starting the season on the IL earned Mahle the coveted responsibility of Opening Day starter this season.
Mahle has shown flashes of ace-adjacent effectiveness this season. He opened eyes with six innings of five-hit, one-run, 10-strikeout ball against the Diamondbacks on June 6th, but it was his next start — also against Arizona — that really put his name on the map. He pitched a complete game shutout, allowing only three hits while striking out 12, becoming one of only two pitchers this year alongside Walker Buehler to go the distance allowing no runs and three or fewer hits with double-digit strikeouts. Yes, both dominant outings came against an unimpressive D’backs offense, but you don’t log back-to-back double-digit strikeout efforts without at least a baseline of ability.
That said, a shoulder injury that cost Mahle three weeks this month could give any prospective acquiring team pause. He has since been reinstated to the active roster, going six innings while allowing three runs on two hits against five strikeouts in his first start back against the Cardinals. Teams may also be concerned by some regression in key areas — worst ERA since 2019, worst K-BB% (16.3 percent) since 2018 — though a FIP that has remained stable relative to last year may hint at a bit of bad luck.
I find Mahle to be a fascinating case. He lives and dies by his four-seamer — one of the best in the game despite throwing it with below average velocity (93.5 mph). Can you guess the pitcher with the most strikeouts on the four-seamer since 2020? That’s right, it’s Mahle. Not Gerrit Cole, not Carlos Rodón, Tyler Mahle.
He’s done this first and foremost by throwing it more times than any pitcher not named Robbie Ray. But crucially, the pitch has top-end characteristics that allow it to hold up against any of the elite four-seamers in the game. Mahle throws it with the eighth-best active spin (99.5 percent) in the league, meaning that all but 0.5 percent of the spin is contributing to pitch movement, in this case that stereotypical carry or riding action that makes four-seamers so effective. As a result, Mahle’s fastball sits in the 90th percentile in terms of rise, which has allowed him to record the eighth-highest whiff rate (29.2 percent) on the four-seamer among pitchers who have thrown it at least 100 times.
Mahle also throws a splitter with decent horizontal movement, a slider used almost exclusively against righties, and a cutter with tremendous depth against lefties. His slider is like the gyro-spin version that Cole throws, and I wonder if reshaping it into the whirly version that many Yankees pitchers are now throwing would turn the pitch from a so-so offering into a strikeout weapon.
Like Castillo, Mahle comes with an extra year of team control, so it would take a more significant offer than if he were just a rental. However, he has nowhere near the ceiling of his teammate, so the Yankees might be able to put together a competitive package that doesn’t include one of their top three prospects — Anthony Volpe, Oswald Peraza, or Jasson Dominguez. It would still require a higher level prospect or two, but nonetheless something more palatable for a Yankees front office reluctant to part with any of the aforementioned trio.
Look, I get it, Mahle is far from the sexiest option on the starting pitching market, or even on his own team for that matter. However, you can never have too many quality starting pitchers, a label which certainly applies to the Reds righty. If the Yankees decide that they need another starter and fail to acquire Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas, they could do worse than Mahle.